Identity can be considered to be strongly influenced by community. Common perception goes that a person develops according to his or her environmental influences, hence, if a person is raised a certain way, such will become a part of an individual’s persona, thereby further defining the identity. A common adage goes, “it takes a village to raise a child”, and a community, whether through direct, active or inactive means, inescapably has an input when it comes to the development of a person. As developmental psychology has pointed at the role of external forces in one’s formation of identity, one of the interesting precepts is whether identity is a given. This is to say that a person of a certain race is not just about being a member of that race; in fact, one’s racial and ethnic background can be considered as one of the many facets contributing to one’s identity. One of these facets may be one’s sexual orientation, and another is a person’s personality and character. A conservative Arab may have a different sense of identity as opposed to an Arab who has more progressive views. However, perception is everything, and undeniably, a community has a strong and significant impact to one’s identity; the village that raised the child fed the child with certain things that he or she would believe in and may or may not use for his or her own personal values.
Although this is the case, the relationship between identity and community, albeit seemingly simplistic, is actually complex. In Leila Ahmed’s piece, “On Becoming an Arab” in A Border Passage, she mentioned her conflict when she experienced being told that she was an Arab. As an Egyptian woman, her identity is mostly associated with everything that had to do with Egypt albeit her dislike for Egyptian politics and the past president Gamal Abdel Nasser. However, in her experience, they were being told what they are as based on their racial/ethnic background, thereby surpassing the identity of what makes her and her family more than an Arab.
From this, it can be gathered that identity is not just about being associated with a certain group. A community is not just a community; for instance, an Arabic community in the United States does not have members that are just Arabic in identity as Arabia in itself is diverse. Nor it was right that being identified an Arab, similar to Leila Ahmed’s past experience, already discounts the many facets of being an Egyptian which also means being “included the old definition of Egyptian” (Ahmed, 244). The same is true with other groups such as the Asians in America. However, identity is not just about having a national identity; going back to Leila Ahmed’s case, she is an Arab and an Egyptian; but this is not enough for a person. An Arab-Egyptian person may have gone to another country, such as for instance, the United States, and has successfully assimilated in a different society. Hence, an Arab-Egyptian-American maybe a working identity, but it is also important to note that an Arab-Egyptian in America does not make him or her less Arab nor less Egyptian. An identity is formed based on certain personal choices, but the innate qualities of one’s community, at the least, remains.
This therefore shows that a community is dynamic and it changes; this also shows that an individual is layers of various influences, from communities to one’s choices. An individual may be born to a specific community, and has formed a certain fraction of his or her identity as based on this community, from its teachings, beliefs and values. However, as a person develops and learns more about the world and himself or herself, a certain sense of identity emerges in which case the need to become a part of a certain community apart from or in addition to one’s original community becomes more heightened. This need to leave one’s community may be based on conflicting values and needs. For instance, in Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, it can be gathered that based on her memoir, she found that the developments in her homeland would shatter the Iranian dream of a revolution, especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Iran imposed new rules and established an Islamic state. Evidently, from Nafisi’s experience, she did not agree with these developments, and for several years, she represented a form of rebellion against her community such as refusing to wear her veil in the classroom.
It can be gathered that an identity can be formed independently from the community mainly because there is the need for the individual to emerge from the collective. In Azar Nafisi’s memoir, she demonstrated a more liberal outlook in life which was shattered when Iran changed regimes and had new rules; should Iran did not go through these changes, would Nafisi remain in Iran and not emigrate?
In similar nature, Jonathan Boyarin’s “Waiting for a Jew” expressed the need to find a community where he would feel a greater sense of belonging. One’s identity is also integral to one’s purpose, and in this case, the purpose is translated to one’s role in a community. Such role can be seen in an active pursuit of participation, if not, by merely becoming a member and more of a spectator. Boyarin demonstrated the struggles of finding himself growing up in a community which he didn’t feel he belonged and would discover outside the community an illusion of a better ideal in which he felt he would belong. In this case, this shows an identity may be a given, but there is still the power to choose one’s community and find means to belong through adaptation, acceptance, and participation.
A person’s identity is based on the formation of an individual, and the relationship between community and identity, as can be seen from these two examples, can be seen in how community is integral in the formation of identity. A community is a point of reference for one’s development, and as a person’s sense of individualism arise, there may be a turning point in which a person chooses to embrace the community whether there were changes or not, or to identify the elements in the community that he or she does not like and goes off to find the right community with a better fit. On the other hand, a community may indicate the identity of its individual members, but it only works at that extent: as an indicator. A person may have many communities and many sources of identity; such as the case of Leila Ahmed who sees herself more as an Egyptian and not just an Arab, and now, as she has worked in Europe and has been teaching in the United States, it can be said that her identity has been also influenced by these different communities outside her home. Identity and community are closely related, but in the end, identity prevails more according to the individual, and the role of the community is significant to the process of influence in the formation of the person’s identity.
Ahmed, Leila. A Border Passage. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1999.
Boyarin, Jonathan. “Waiting for a Jew: Marginal Redemption at the Eighth Street Shul,”
Thinking in Jewish. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, 8-34.
Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran. New York: Random House, 2003.